Monday, October 30, 2017

100. 'Drinking water' by another name!

Not in reality but such pictures help sell bottled water
No sooner had I made my selection from a severely restricted vegetarian menu, the waiter at the restaurant in Kensington, London had surprised me by quizzing: `still' or `sparkle'? It took me few seconds before I could fathom that the query was related to my choice between the 'ordinary' and the'carbonated' water. Choice for water was a cultural shock, making me wonder why the British didn't learn from those whom they ruled for no less than two centuries. Serving water to guests is an accepted norm, a bare minimum courtesy! 

Need it be said that the Swiss are different from the Brits. In a Lucerne restaurant, the waiter took me by surprise when I had asked for a glass of water. Big or small glass? It was a moment of reckoning for me. I was almost about to shower my appreciation for the Swiss ingenuity for saving water by determining the thirst upfront, when the waiter had given me a rude shock by explaining that it is one euro in price what separates the small from a big glass of water.  

Far from making the west learn hydro-courtesy from the east, the reverse is becoming more of an exception with us. Walk into any restaurant and be summarily quizzed: `tap' or `bottled'. Unless one is in a glitzy hotel where a much expensive water menu is on offer, from Rs 50 to Rs 150 or more per bottle, seeking customer's preference for water has become an accepted norm across all kinds of street restaurants, and even roadside dhabas. And, no one seems to be complaining! 

Make no mistake, market economy that thrives on rapid turnover of product diversity have had its impact on consumers' choice for `water' too. Asking `drinking water' is passé for its suspect quality, but branded variants of packaged water with varied degrees of dubious quality assurances have been universally accepted. From ordinary to premium, from spring to glacial, and from aerated to flavored, drinking water has built its own range of products wherein brand draws more value than its contents.

Like ambidextrous master archer Arjuna, who was known by several names, water too has attained an equally evolving nomenclature viz., drinking water, bottled water, aerated water, river water, irrigation water, flood water, grey water, brown water, green water, sea water, revenue water and transboundary water. Each variant has its distinct origin with associated physical features. Does each variant not create a distinct liquid relation based on its (water) fast-changing biological and physical attributes? 

Of all the types of water on offer, it is only the 'blue' which seems to be missing from the list. Rightfully so because `blue' has long ceased to be the true color of water, and it survives more on computer screens than as earthly reality! Need it be said that the elixir of life is facing a crises of identity. Each new identity only degenerates its cosmic existence, hinting at the severity of the impending crises. No surprise, therefore, that even the Mahakal temple in Ujjain is now asking devotees to offer treated water to the deity lord.        

The world seems to have come full circle on its hydrological cycle. What is found in nature, whether flowing or impounded, is anything but 'sick water'. Amen! 

This piece was first published in The Tribune dated Dec 6, 2017. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

99. Grow More Good

Grow More Good
The engraving on the pulpit of the house had seemed to me a cemented error. How could the mason inscribe 'Grow More Good' on the wall when there were resounding cries for growing more food during the 70's? Heavens would have fallen on the beleaguered mason for this misadventure, I had thought! Instead, it showcased the house owner's sublime character and a lifelong quest for spreading goodness. Privy to that household during my school/college days, I carry vivid memories of the time spent with the house owner - the inimitable Sardar Sobha Singh - immortalized by his alluring portrait of Sohni-Mahiwal. 

Close to our family and a frequent visitor to our household, daarji's (as he was fondly called) greatness lay in his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful words, by which, he would abbreviate his artistic thoughts. A man of few words, he had once told me that politics is nothing but ‘poly-tricks’. For the world at large he was the greatest spiritual painter of all times, but for us and especially for my mother he was a saint incarnate in white robes, and a matching flowing beard. A celebrated artist of his stature often visited our middle-class household because, as he would tell us, 'you have a taste for books that not many have'! My interest in books has only grown ever since. I possess less of everything but books.  

Daarji - Sardar Sobha Singh 
Daar-ji once borrowed a book from us, and didn't visit us for several weeks thereafter. We were worried. Telephone was a rarity then, and the only option at hand was to visit him at Andretta, then a small village not far from Palampur in Himachal Pradesh. Though hard of hearing, daar-ji enjoyed the relentless chirping of birds in the big cage placed in the verandah. Paradoxically, a red cockerel ruling the courtyard was an added surprise. But for the artist in him, the cock-a-doodle-doo was a perfect wake-up call in the morning. 

Months later daar-ji visited us with a copy of the borrowed title, regretting the delay in replacing the book that someone had further borrowed from him, and had failed to return. Without sounding preachy, daar-ji reflected goodness through subtle deeds. His greatness lay in his simplicity.

Undoubtedly, daar-ji was a perfectionist who didn't miss out on life's finer details. Seeing quite a few unfinished portraits in his study, I could notice the power of his imagination in capturing many moods of Guru Nanak. How do you get ideas, I had asked him once! 'That is my inspiration', he had said pointing towards the majestic Shiwalik mountain range from the window in his study. Daar-ji believed in the power of place I'd imagine, and had therefore refused government's offer of relocating his studio to Chandigarh.

It has been three decades that the genius last drew on his canvas but his message ‘grow more good’ remains relevant now than ever before.

In a rare interview to All India Radio several years ago, the legendary actor Prithviraj Kapoor had himself mentioned that whenever free he preferred visiting his friend Sardar Sobha Singh in Andreta, Palampur. Without doubt, the place is still worth a visit.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

98. Back in the race

Beating each other in the slush race  
(Pic: Luke Metelerkamp)
It was a race of a lifetime I was witness to. It neither involved horses nor cars but a pair of buffaloes racing on a slushy track with a determined athlete in toe. Much like the sturdy pair of bovine, the six-pack athlete was no less determined to win the race either. With hundreds of villagers cheering the racing duo, it has been a long-held tradition of celebrating the man-animal co-existence for a bountiful harvest in coastal Karnataka. And, there were any number of teams from different coastal villages vying for the coveted title.        

I had my first brush with this cultural extravaganza, called Kambala, few years ago in village Venur in the coastal region of Mangalore. It was a pleasant wintry evening in January 2011, the well-lit arena was decked up in celebration with people in all hues thronging the racing track. What had begun as a thanksgiving event for protecting the cattle against diseases, the annual racing event has grown into a competitive sport that enthralls and entertains. The animal rights activists may continue to think otherwise!     

Keeping pace with raging buffaloes on the slush track was indeed testing, as if bovines were running for their life. Racing at an incredible speed, it was a perfect test for human endurance against incredible bovine power. For the fear of running over, half a dozen villagers had to herd together to take control of the animals at the finish line. They would calm the animals by giving it a hug, make it eat and rest before the next race. Each of the racing pairs looked well groomed and healthy, as did the accompanying athletes.

At the finish line
(Pic: Luke Metelerkamp)
Were the animals tortured during training? Were these creatures intoxicated to run the way they did? The organizers had led me to the animal resting places to find for myself if that was the case. 'These are no ordinary cattle, they bring laurels to the village', quipped a team member. These are treated like sportsmen, nurtured and trained in the art of racing from early years. No wonder, there were no marks of external injury on any of the participating animals. So much is at stake that some owners train their buffaloes in separate swimming pool for getting them used to conditions before every race.  

That these are special animals, treated like children and selected for their sturdy features including disease resistance, make me think that this annual cultural event is more than just an occasion for fun and frolic. It promotes the process of natural selection in disguise. The best among buffaloes get selected, nurtured and tested. The animals people race are the animals that help breed the next generation of calves, sturdy to withstand adverse conditions. That such a valuable process is conducted by the communities at their own initiative, and for the benefit of the society at large surely calls for a celebration!        

With hardly anything worth celebrating in the countryside these days, the assent for re-conduct of Kambala by the first citizen of the country has given something for the last citizens to cheer about. Let the race begin again. 

Kambala was banned in 2014, but the outgoing President of India gave a parting gift to the people of Karnataka by granting assent for (re)conducting the sporting event on July 3, 2017.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

97. I think everyone should know it!

Don't get me wrong if I say that girls spend more time looking for a bridal lehenga, that they wear just once, than a groom whom they seek for life.

In my wildest of dreams I could not have imagined that a six-meter apparel, which came into existence eons ago in this part of the world, could spin a recession-proof billion dollar industry. From the ordinary to the special, or extra-special, it isn't the traditional outfit anymore that my grandmother and mother would wear before setting out in the public. Laced with exquisite embroidery and inexpensive pearls, this earliest stitched skirt has come of age on the global stage by winning accolades on red carpets across the world. And, it is not done yet. 

A raunchy lehenga dance from a Bollywood movie 
Secured at woman's waist but leaving the lower back and midriff bare may have set off its multiple cinematic renditions, from sublime to the raunchiest, but not without letting all-pervasive lehenga earn its meteoric rise as a secular apparel for festivals and weddings. So much so that its traditional variants - ghagra, chaniya, pavdai or lacha - have long faded into oblivion as an annual lehenga business in excess of US$10 billion leaps center-stage into the ever growing wedding industry. It will be sacrilege to imagine a bride without a lehenga!   

No surprise, it remains one of the most sought after apparel for any wedding. Don't get me wrong if I say that girls spend more time looking for a lehenga, that they wear just once, than a groom whom they seek for life. With as many as 10 million marriages in the making each year in India, the six-meter apparel could not have had a better prospect. Celebrity endorsements have set the market abuzz. As designer studios and neighborhood boutiques surface all over, the ubiquitous lehenga has revolutionized the marriage market like never before.

The two-minute lehenga 
Should one buy such an expensive apparel that is worn just once (as its assemblage weighs heavy) or would it make better sense to take it on hire instead? The sociology of lehenga, if there was one, could have offered some interesting insights. Suffice it to say that the lehenga reflects the social status of the bride's family. If that was not the case, most bride families would have conveniently taken a lehenga on hire for the ceremony. Rarely if ever they do so, knowing well that it is worth a single wear only a'la a two-minute lehenga

For the expanding middle class with a notion of false pride, the price of a lehenga isn't worth any serious attention. After all, marriage is once-in-a-lifetime event for which families like to splurge at least a fourth of their lifetime savings, such that the wedding remains talk of the town. Who would want the story of a hired lehenga doing the rounds instead! Little do they realize that for no good reasons the sociology of lehenga is fueling the economy of lehenga on a scale. I've been cautioned to refrain from raking up an issue lest I earn the ire of the lehenga industry.   

But a friend inspired me to bring the lehenga story up. If hiring a lehenga is against the prestige of the bride's family, he tells me,  then why should the family stop at just the lehenga? Will it not add to their pride if they were to buy the ghodi (mare), the band-baaza (musical band) and the rest of it? Well said, I think everyone should know it! 

Some readers have mentioned that 'false pride' extends beyond 'lehenga' into male wardrobe. None of the 'sherwanis' and 'glitzy suits' bought for the occasion (marriage) ever get worn thereafter. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

96. Reduced to numbers

....our inner wear has a number and so has our outer wear; neither is a shoe without a number nor is a sandal; phone without number doesn't ring and neither does a mobile; success counts on number as failure rues the lack of getting the desired number. 

Being a preferred client, I got a call from my bank's relationship manager about why I had not submitted my 12-digits Unique Identification Number to the Bank. 'Since getting such a number is not yet obligatory by law why should I reduce my identity into just a number', I had responded with a matter-of-fact clarity on the subject. I thought i was tacit in my response, notwithstanding a sigh of exasperation at the other end.     
From being a digit on the population register to a number on the electoral rolls, we have been reduced to a number on the cash book at the bank, on the directory of the mobile service provider, on the currency that is but largely plastic in nature and so on. One's birth is a number and so is one's departure; an inner wear has a number and so has an outer wear; neither is a shoe without a number nor is a sandal; phone without number doesn't ring and neither does a mobile; success counts on number as failure rues the lack of getting the desired number. 

With everything but a number, what is a big deal about a person being numbered. But for a crazy soul like me, no one seems to be complaining. What is in a name after all, most seem to be in agreement with Shakespeare. However, my parents don't see any sense in it having named me and my siblings in an elaborate social exercise. Assigning a name to a new born has cultural and spiritual ramifications, that they say can hardly be undone in a jiffy.

And, I don't buy the argument that a number can hide my 'caste', and can put to rest the prevailing social disparity around our cultural identity. Come to think of it, each identification number is only assigned after securing an in-depth social and economic profile of an individual. It could be anybody's guess how this number game might play up at the end, by those in power holding these numbers in big databases to their advantage. I shudder to think about the myriad possibilities.      

Born with the largest brain relative to body weight, nature has bestowed a unique position for humans among all other species. Our upright posture and the ability to walk on two legs have placed us on top of the ecological pyramid, making us the master of not only our own destiny but that of others too. But far from using the big brain to bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual and beyond, it is pathetic that we have ended up being an exercise in sheer 'numbers'.

The more critical I think the more it surprises me that there is a indeed an unending fascination for numbers among everyone around me. The psychology of numbers has played so heavy on the democracy of numbers in an era dominated by the economics of numbers, that its cumulative impact has been felt by each one of us. No wonder, our house help is as enamored by it as my better half. The game of numbers has caught on with everybody.  
Irrespective of caste, class, creed, competence or credibility, the quest of each human of late has been to attain the first six digits. A six figure income is all that each one of us is craving for (as of today). Ironically, those who have already attained these 'six digits' are more unhappy than those who are striving to achieve it. Yet, the race to gain access to a higher digit is relentless. I wonder what worth is life that has been reduced to numbers!